LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES and the pneumatic nail gun are arguably the biggest changes the construction industry has seen in living memory. These technologies helped tradespeople do what they do a little faster and a little more easily. Innovative for sure, but hardly revolutionary.
Then consider our training model – the apprenticeship system. At its core, it hasn’t changed much since it was invented in the Middle Ages. Apprentices work under the tutelage of a master for four years, then spend the next four decades mastering the trade themselves.
So, it is with some good reason that many in the industry are bearish about the scale of change the coming decades could hold. But there are some strong signals that the next few decades could be very different from the last few. Experts tell us that up to three-quarters of construction jobs could be automated before the first half of this century is out. If they are even half-right, there are some seismic shifts coming.
Our own research in Australia has identified a range of forces lining up to reshape the construction industry as we know it. Chief among these is the aging population, which doesn’t just mean an older workforce, but also a smaller one as the population swells with retirees. This has one inescapable consequence: any business model that relies upon a plentiful supply of fit young people is unsustainable. It means that the ever-growing demands for buildings and infrastructure will soon outrun our capacity to meet those demands.
The only path forward is to innovate. The construction industry must find ways to produce more with less labor. Economists call this productivity improvement. And it is something our industry does not do very well. There are many ways to skin the productivity cat. The industry can, and is, moving the work off the construction site and into factories. With the help of labor-saving technologies, offsite construction enables more efficient task designs.
Yet, the reality of building means that there will always be some activity onsite. The construction site is a highly unstructured and variable thing. This makes it particularly resistant to autonomous machines and robots.
Digital technologies, however, hold great potential for enhancing productivity in construction. It has been estimated that 20-40% of construction costs are waste – wasteful spending, wasteful delays and wasteful communication. Information breakdowns are often the root cause. Herein lies the promise of digital construction.
Digital construction is about more than just Building Information Modelling (BIM). The emerging general purpose digital technologies are finding a home in construction: machine learning and artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), geographic information systems, augmented/ virtual/extended reality, as well as laser and other 3D scanners.
One example is the solution offered by Australian company, Ynomia, who is injecting IoT technology into the construction value chain. By embedding small sensors on all manner of plant, material and people, Ynomia’s process generates an ocean of data about a project, which is then analysed with advanced machine learning algorithms. The result is an incredibly rich picture of the job that empowers builders to drive efficiencies, raise productivity and make better decisions. These digital technologies promise not only to iron out the information breakdowns that add up to the industry’s habitual cost overruns, but also have the potential to prevent injury by weaving smart technology into standard equipment.
These changes bring an enormous skilling, reskilling and upskilling challenge. This is a difficult task because we just don’t know what those skills will be – just as 50 years ago we had no idea we would be paying people to manage our “IT systems” and handle our “social media.”
It seems inevitable, though, that digital literacy needs to be much more prominent in our thinking. In the future, there will be greater emphasis on cognitive and digital capabilities than on the raw physical attributes of strength, endurance and coordination. The challenge will be to create a workforce that is comfortable working with digital technology and embodies a spirit of continuous learning. Our current training paradigm, which delivers generic and stable skills that are highly manual, will be severely challenged by digital transformation.
It is critical that we get ahead of this change. The impact of these technologies will be well within the career spans of many of us. And they will certainly affect the next generation of apprentices.
Brett Schimming is Chief Executive Officer for Construction Skills Queensland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org